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Freshness at any expense: the myth and the reality

24 March 2012

at 16:19 by Manuel Legault-Roy

New Harvest

Already, in recent weeks, some producers in southern China have been able to start their harvests of green tea, much to our delight. In general, Mr. He, our Huiming producer, begins harvesting and processing his teas just one month after the Chinese New Year, near the end of February. When the much anticipated samples arrive, even if we have great expectations of the quality, we must remain vigilant.

It is here that the myth of ‘fresh at any expense’ comes into play. We often think that the earlier the harvest, the more the fresh tea will be aromatic. This is not strictly true, the first teas to reach us might not actually be the most interesting in terms of their taste and fragrances. Mr. He describes the first teas produced as often too delicate to make a tea with complex and deep aromas. Many of these first leaves are used to make “beautiful” rather than “good” teas.

That said, it is true that the spring crops have the greatest aromatic qualities. Nevertheless, it is important to pay attention to the significant distinction that can sometimes be made between freshness and quality. It is no surprise then that many of our spring teas come between April and June. This is a small price of patience to pay to receive some truly exceptional harvests.

The Tea Master and the Samurai – Part Two

9 March 2012

at 16:36 by Manuel Legault-Roy

growth
(Continued …)
The swordsman admitted to his guest that he was also a great admirer of the tea ceremony and that he would like to see his talent in action, assuring him, that afterwards, he would be better able to advise on swordsmanship. Very happy to be able to practice his art one last time, the tea master accepted the proposal. During this ceremony, as always, the man entered a flawless state of concentration, forgetting all the worries of outside life, as well as the imminent danger hanging over his existence. His movements were fluid, dance-like, and dazzled his host with their harmony. Satisfied, the weapons master invited him into his training room to offer his advice.

He explained that in a duel, he had to greet his opponent with great respect, the way he greeted his guests in a ceremony. Consequently, it was thus important to find the same state of serenity and concentration as in the practice of his art. He could then draw his sword and place it high above his head with eyes half closed. The cry of his adversary signalled the attack, he had to lower his weapon as fast as possible and try to wound his opponent, while the latter delivered the fatal blow …..

Armed with determination and the advice of the weapons master, the man of tea went to his deadly meeting. Seeing his adversary advance, he bowed deeply and meditated. He half closed his eyes and unsheathed his weapon as the master had shown him and then waited, impassively, for the shout of his adversary that indicated the moment to lower his blade and die with dignity. The wait was long, too long. The weight of the weapon was beginning to make his arms shake when he opened his eyes.
He was so surprised to see the ronin leaving, ridiculed by the crowd –  the swordsman had realized that his opponent was tougher than he had initially thought. None of his feints or attempts to intimidate had disrupted the concentration of the man of tea, indicating a mastery of the sword greatly exceeding his own. Defeated, he could only save his life, leaving his honour behind.

Spring Teas 1866

6 March 2012

at 15:42 by john

Soon it will be time for our team of tasters to travel to Asia in search of this Year’s Spring Teas.
These days, fortunately for us, shipments happen in weeks rather than months. Not so in 1866 …
Tea Clippers
In the history of tea and its spread across the globe there have been many moments of historical significance, yet for conveying sheer excitement there is perhaps none so thrilling to read of than the Great Tea Race of 1866.

In the days of the British Empire tea was one of the few cargoes considered valuable enough to carry both at speed, and through the considerable dangers of typhoons and shallow shoals in the South China Sea. The state of the art vessel designed for this use was the clipper. With average speeds of up to 16 knots these ships made an exhibition of their speed during the many highly publicized tea races of the mid to late 1800′s. Besides the prestige involved, in 1866 for example, the winnings amounted to 10 shillings extra per ton for the cargo and £100 for the captain of the first ship to arrive.
This race was essentially between 5 ships (of 9 ships bringing tea from china that year) –

  • the Ariel (built in 1863),
  • the Fiery Cross (built in 1860, winner in the tea races of 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1865),
  • the Serica (built in 1863, winner in 1864),
  • the Taeping (built in 1865),
  • the Taitsing (built in 1865).

They each carried around 1 million lbs of tea (plus or minus a few 100 000 lbs) – just loading the cargo was a serious operation – its said that the Ariel was packed in a record time of just four days with more than 12,000 tea chests totaling 1,230,900 lbs of tea!
The race began on the 29th May with the Fiery Cross leaving the port at Fuzhou in China. The Ariel, the Taeping and the Serica left the following day, and the Taitsing on the 1st of June. It was reported that the Captain of the Fiery Cross was so keen to make a fast start, he departed the moment his cargo had been loaded, without papers and without signing the official bills of lading!

The voyage covered a distance of around 16,000 miles (26,000 km), taking close to a hundred days to complete. Their course initally took them east around the north coast of Taiwan (then named Formosa), and then south through the Indian ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and north through the Atlantic via the Azores to the English channel. This was the only viable route before the opening of the suez canal.
By the time they had reached the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic (aproximately 2/3 rds of the way) the Taeping was leading the Fiery Cross by a day, with Ariel and Serica another day behind them. After ninety days (August 29th) the first four vessels passed the Azores, all on the same day – a close race indeed!

After ninety-seven days at sea, on the morning of September the 6th, the ships approached the English Channel with the Ariel and Taeping just ahead of Serica and with the Fiery Cross in the rear. The two leaders, within sight of each other, both moving at 14 knots, raced up the English Channel towards Deal in Kent, the unofficial finish point of the Tea Race.
At this point the Ariel was in the lead, ten minutes ahead of the Taeping, the Serica and the Fiery Cross, respectively 2 hours and 36 hours behind. However, the winnings were awarded to the first to dock in London and in the ensuing race up the River Thames the contest was won by the Taeping – 20 mins ahead of the Ariel and 2 hours ahead of the Serica. The remaining two ships arriving 2 days later.

London’s Daily Telegraph of 12 September 1866, in an article headed “The Great Tea Race of 1866″, reported:
“ … A struggle more closely contested or more marvellous in some of its aspects has probably never before been witnessed. The Taeping, which won, arrived on the Lizard at literally the same hour as the Ariel, her nearest rival, and then dashed up the Channel, the two ships abreast of each other. During the entire day they gallantly ran side by side, carried on by a strong westerly wind, every stitch of canvas set, and the sea sweeping their decks as they careered before the gale.

In fact tug boats were involved in the final river section of the journey and there is a distinct possibility that the Taeping, as well as drawing less water than the Ariel (meaning it could dock at a lower level of the tide), may have gained an advantage from affording a better tug boat. However, in a truly ‘British’ sounding ending, the two Captains agreed to split the winnings.

The Tea Master and the Samurai – Part One

1 March 2012

at 15:12 by Manuel Legault-Roy

winner

The history of tea in Japan is greatly indebted to the many tea masters who established various rules and principles of the art of tea which make the ceremony we know today as Cha no yu. These highly colourful characters, noblemen and commoners, are figures in many fables and stories of the Japanese imagination. These representations of the four principles governing the tea ceremony (respect, harmony, purity and serenity), bring forward the deeply human side of Cha no yu. Without further ado, here is an example:

The Tea Master and the Samurai

During a trip to Edo to accompany his lord to visit the Shogun, a tea master asked for a half day off to visit this beautiful city whose wonders he had never previously explored. Unfortunately, finding no samurai guard of his daimyo to accompany him, the streets of the city being known to be of somewhat ill repute, the man of tea was greatly embarrassed. It should be noted that at that time, if a samurai felt offended in any way whatsoever by a man of a lower class than his, the warrior had power of life and death over him. The impasse was resolved by an odd idea from one of the advisers of the Lord: why not disguise the man of tea as a samurai?

Dressed in the armour of the Daimyo Tosa, no one would think to pick a quarrel with a man representing so powerful a clan. The idea was adopted, and the frail man was decked out with the armour and weapons of his Lord.

Strolling through the city, the man of tea was enjoying the fear in the eyes of commoners and the respect in those of the warriors, never before having had such regard. Yet, of course, the danger was not far away. For some time now, a ronin, a masterless samurai, was watching this strange warrior who seemed to be floating in his armour The treacherous warrior therefore decided to try his luck, telling himself that if he challenged this samurai, who did not seem to be real, and dishonoured this frail warrior, he could get hired in his place or receive a handsome sum for keeping quiet about the matter. Taking advantage of the inattentiveness of the man of tea, whose eyes were lost in the displays of the stalls, the ronin crossed his path, causing the tea master to collide with him. The masterless warrior took offence at the bold manner in which the disguised man of tea had jostled him and demanded to settle the dispute by blood and sword.

Devastated at the thought of having to unsheathe a sword that he could in no way handle, but aware that he could not shirk the challenge without bringing disgrace to his lord, the man of tea asked his opponent for a postponement, claiming that he was on a mission for his master and that dying without completing his duty would be too great a dishonour to suffer. This delay permitted, the man of tea rushed into the nearest sword school and explained his situation to the master of arms. To the dismay of the man of tea, the latter laughed and told him that he had the mentality that was missing in all his disciples who were taking lessons in the hope of acquiring more power, while that he had the determination to die with honour. The tea master’s long years of practice of Cha no yu had imprinted a deep serenity in him that left him humble even in the face of his approaching end.

To be continued ……

 
 

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